A.I. thinks I’ve only got one ear

I will explain the title for this post at the end (I think that’s called click bait) but first things first. Kudos to Netflix, they have now made three impactful documentaries exposing the dangers of AI driven manipulation of data for society and our civil liberties. These malgorithms are what Cathy O’Neil, who features heavily in one of the films, calls ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’. First came ‘The Great Hack’ in 2019 which exposed the deeply disturbing scandal of Cambridge Analytica and their manipulation of voter behaviour using data facebook had provided resulting in Mark Zuckerberg having to appear in front of Congressional hearings. The following year two more films were debuted by Netflix, first ‘The Social Dilemma’ then ‘Coded Bias’.

I wrote an eBook about my reaction to ‘The Social Dilemma’. TSD focused on how social media was being driven by venal amoral algorithms designed to maximize advertising revenues. These algorithms learn that the best way to do this is to feed people, to hook them like addicts, on content that pandered to their prurience, prejudices and psychoses. The result, the unintended consequence, is an increase mental illness especially among the young, bias confirmation and, most concerningly for liberal democracies, polarization of opinion to the point where rational debate is all but extinguished. So I chose to write my eBook as a contribution to a more rational – Socratic – discussion based on some small scale research I conducted among opinion leaders and on the basis of this I attempted to offer possible solutions. I’ll come back to those.

The third Netflix documentary of 2020, following closely on the heels of TSD, was ‘Coded Bias’ directed by Shalini Kantayya and featuring Joy Buolamwini among many other experts and activists, mostly women from diverse backgrounds. This was entirely appropriate since Joy’s work which she carried out at MIT exposed how facial recognition surveillance powered by AI was reinforcing racial and gender bias. The efforts of Joy Buolamwini, Cathy O’Neil and other prominent activists like Silkie Carlo founder of ‘Big Brother Watch’ in the UK have had some notable successes in forcing governments and law enforcement agencies to curtail the use of facial recognition surveillance. However, there remains widespread commercial use of AI that affects peoples chances of gaining employment, housing, credit, insurance, healthcare based on algorithms that are unregulated and flawed, in particular AI that been shown to be negatively biased against the poor, the racial minorities and the unconventional. AI is therefore reinforcing social inequality, preventing social mobility and restricting individual self-expression. This is just as terrifying as the manipulation of social media to change not just what we think but the way we think, our most fundamental human right, and the manipulation of elections, an attack on the very foundation of democracy.

All of this has been exposed in three documentaries produced by Netflix. Amazon and Apple both make lots of documentaries but none so far on the dangers of big data and AI. One wonders why……… but as I say, kudos to Netflix. I guess in the case of Netflix they use algorithms only to commission new content for you, and to suggest available content to you, that they think you might like, more like weapons of Individual entertainment than mass destruction.

I said I would return to potential solutions to this AI challenge and we need solutions because we do want, we desperately need, the positive use of AI to help us take on the Herculean tasks of tackling climate change, food poverty, obtaining better health opportunities for all.  As an atheist I don’t believe we were created by God but many of those who do also believe we were created in his/her/their likeness. They explain away humanity’s capacity to do as much evil as good as God giving us free will. Perhaps God did create us to be just like him/her/them and perhaps having given us free will he/she/they did not fully understand the ramifications of that until it became too late to do anything about it. This seems to be the perfect metaphor for AI. We created it and we gave it lots of data about us so it could think like us, maybe be better than us, certainly a lot faster than us. AI can only learn from big data (which remember means not just lots of it but multi-source). The biases that ‘Coded Bias’ talks about happened because the data we gave the AI to learn from was skewed to, let’s call it, ‘white privilege’. So we created AI to be like us, but only some of us, and we allowed it to develop in ways that were both good and bad for the world, just like us, and it is in danger of getting out of control, just like us. So how do we do better than God? How do we get AI back under control and how do we direct it towards things that are good for a free and open society, a world of equal opportunity for all irrespective of class, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, faith (personally I’m not so sure about the last of those given the religious extremists out there but maybe with AI we can sort them out too)?

China is on a very different agenda it must be said. They are 100% explicit that they do not agree with democracy and that they want to use AI and data to control their society. There is no secret to what China are doing with data and facial recognition, we saw this in Hong Kong in response to the people who dared to challenge the state. In China you get a Social Credit Score, like a financial credit score but all encompassing. If you do the wrong thing, if you say the wrong thing, even if people you know do or say something wrong you are punished and the state, the CCP will know exactly what you are doing and saying, where you go and with whom you are consorting because they have all your data. The state can control you by controlling your Social Credit Score and thereby restricting your ability to get housing, access to public transport & travel, healthcare, financial services, you name it.

That makes them terrible, right? China is much worse than the free Western democracies – but is it? Of the 9 major organizations developing big data AI, 3 are in China and 6 are in the USA. Exactly the same thing is happening in America as in China with two important differences a) you don’t know about it, it’s invisible and b) the power lies in the hands of these few huge commercial enterprises who care first and foremost about profit and shareholders. People are denied jobs, financial services, housing, information & content is pushed at us with bias and partiality, all because without us knowing we are being watched, measured and judged by AI algorithms that not even the people that created them fully understand. Governments have used AI and data in ways that undermine civil liberties but they are being called out, they are accountable, although there remains an understandable concern that an extreme left or right wing government might not be so shy in abusing the power of AI & data. As they say, just because you are paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

So, solutions. I’ll start with the two proposals I’ve made previously because I still believe they are 100% right and both doable.

Firstly, social media needs to be regulated and forced to move to a subscription model. Social media generates a huge amount of data due its pervasiveness and frequency of use. AI learns from data and Social Media is where it does most of its homework. These are powerful platforms and they should require licenses that can be revoked in the case of malfeasance, just like newspapers and TV were. If the business model is subscription based they can still be very large businesses but most importantly the algorithms would be trained to build customer loyalty not eyeball addiction. If you pay something every month to use facebook, even just $1 then you are a customer not data fodder.

Secondly, there should be government investment together with commercial incentives to develop platforms that allow people to own, control and, when they chose to, transact their own data. Data is the new oil but it has been allowed to fall into the hands of robber barons. It is your data, you should be able to harvest it, store it and use it however benefits you most. This is not a quick fix and will require secure technology infrastructure with the scale and complexity we see today in financial markets and services. In my view it could be an opportunity for the financial sector who have the resources and customer base to make this work. Even if you don’t like your bank you have to trust them because they manage your most sensitive information already. A bank could be trusted to store your personal data, allow it to be transacted on your terms to get you a return and to manage those transactions. I don’t understand why banks don’t look at data in the same way they used to look at cash – bring it to us, we’ll keep it safe and give you access to it when you want and if you’ll allow us we will lend it out to be people (encrypted to preserve privacy) and make it work for you. Instead of going to facebook, or any of the data trawlers, scrapers and scavengers, big brands would go to the banks and buy the profiles they are looking for to promote whatever they want. People would consent to see brand content, anonymously, if it was made worth their time or interest.

Put these two things together – social media on subscription and the mechanism to leverage one’s own data – and you have solved a big part of the problem with no need for regulation.

That said there is still a role for regulation to prevent data abuse at the hands of AI and hold miscreants accountable but it has to be co-ordinated internationally and that sems like quite the challenge in a world were there seems to be growing nationalism and weakening global alliances. That was my conclusion but something in ‘Coded Bias’ gave me some optimism. The point was made that algorithms need an equivalent to the FDA, the US federal agency for Food and Drug Administration. We don’t allow people to market pharmaceuticals or foods that have not been tested or lack the appropriate quality controls. And this does, more or less, work across international borders. So why can’t there be an IAA, International Algorithm Administration, backed by international law that enforces the responsible development of AI?

Finally, I want to address the issue of whether big tech companies are actually able to behave responsibly – they say they want to but always use the defense that the scale of their operation, the sheer number of users and data points, make it impossible to have foresight on all unintended consequences and oversight on every malpractice. Let’s focus on the issue raised in ‘Coded Bias’, that facial recognition technology is biased against certain social groups, generally the disadvantaged groups who are under-represented in the data the AI is learning from. In my research I came across something new to me (I never claimed to be a technology expert). It is called synthetic data and is predicted to become a huge industry. The models and processing needed to develop synthetic data are no doubt very complex but the output is very simple to explain, the clue is in the name. This is artificial data, data that’s confected, invented, made up. It is needed to fill gaps in real authentic data to help AI to learn to do whatever it is developed to do. For AI to be effective it needs lots of data and the data has to be comprehensive and statistically representative. So they run lots of simulations based on lots of different scenarios in order to produce data to plug the gaps in real data.

This is a terrifying concept but it is not conceptual, it is happening right now. Many if not most of the systems developed using machine learning and AI use synthetic data, it overcomes issues of sensitive and confidential data that is hard to get. Obviously it is open to abuse, you can create the data to feed to AI that teaches it to discriminate prejudicially. So per the previous point, there has to be regulation. However, it can also be used to eliminate bias.

As humans we are programmed to be biased, our brains work by using pattern recognition. We know not all snakes are dangerous but some are, so if it looks like a snake we run. It’s a basic survival instinct and instincts are very hard to shift. When we look at an individual we take in the visual cues and form judgements and, just like the malgorithms, our brains have been trained to make prejudicial assumptions on flawed information. Someone looks a particular way, talks a particular way, exhibits certain behaviours and we make a negative judgement, there is no point in pretending otherwise. That judgement can be unfair but as humans we have the ability to over-ride our unconscious bias and make a conscious decision to look deeper, to give someone a chance, before making a decision that affects them. Synthetic data allows us to programme that humanity into AI. Poor people are a bad credit risk, the real data will teach AI this lesson and make it hard for certain social groups to access the loans that might help lift them out of poverty. The same system will make it very easy for the well off to buy a second car. One thinks it would be better for society to make finance available to facilitate social mobility rather than more physical mobility for the well off. If so we can use synthetic data to upweight the scenarios in which poor people are not unfairly treated as bad credit risks.

‘Coded Bias’ certainly got me thinking, so well done Netflix, again. My brain works in strange ways and the focus on racial bias in facial recognition made me think about ears. A lot of images of people will be side on as they walk past the camera that’s recording them, so it will only detect one ear. The AI might conclude that lots of people, even most people in certain locations, might only have one ear. Having only one ear has a medical term, it’s called microtia and it is more common than I thought when I looked it up. It occurs in 1-5 out of every 10,000 births which I think means there are 4 million out of the global population of 8 billion that only have one ear. Not common then, but not unheard of in the real world. We could teach AI about this, using synthetic data because samples of real world data would not likely detect the prevalence of microtia. It might prevent AI drawing the wrong conclusions, either ignoring microtia or over-estimating it. On the other hand, it might help facial recognition spot a one eared crook like Mark ‘Chopper’ Reid, the Australian criminal who cut off his own ear in prison to get an early release (it’s a long story). My question is very simple – would a machine have even thought about this, would it have looked up the data on microtia, searched online for an example of a one eared crook? I doubt it. So, if you have them, listen with both ears and both eyes wide open, we need to use AI, not let AI use us.

Jordan Peterson and the Ancient Greeks

Acclaimed, and controversial, academic Jordan Peterson has founded his own university, Ralston, with two campuses, one in Savannah, Georgia USA, and the other on Samos, a Greek island, home to the Goddess Hera, the philosopher Epicurus, the astronomer Aristarchus and the great mathematician Pythagoras. I suspect JP might also have a holiday home there.

The ambition behind this new humanities-focused university is the creation of a new unifying ethos (that is to say ‘character’ based on a coherent set of values) achieved by reconnecting with the Ancient Greek philosophers. Students are required to learn Classic Greek in order to study directly from the original texts of Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius et al.

I really like the sound of this. Indeed, if I was 40 years younger I’d be applying to enroll. There are sadly two problems with this wishful thinking. Firstly, 4O years ago I would have had no interest in philosophy, ancient Greek or otherwise, and having given up even Latin as soon as I could in my not-so-classical education the idea of having to learn Greek would too big a hill to climb. My interest in philosophy, Greek philosophy in particular, has grown slowly over the years as career gave way to time on my hands. If only we could live our lives backwards, starting with a lot more wisdom and some financial freedom and growing towards the youthful energy to make best use of both. Secondly, admission to Ralston is very limited and very meritocratic. I am not smart enough to get in I fear.

So I will just commend the opportunity to attend what sounds like a really interesting new, yet in terms of ethos, ancient University to those who are both younger and smarter than me.

I do admire Jordon Peterson and I am sure the personal one-on-one sessions students get with him will be a major draw card. Like the ancient Greek philosophers, he is trying to make sense of the world, to debate and  think his way through to a better vision for humanity. In the process he challenges intellectually weak thinking at either end of the political spectrum although it is the left who he seems most to antagonise. He walks head up, back straight (something he commends in ‘12 Rules for Life’) into the trans and feminist debates armed with the most irritating of weapons, well-researched facts and well-structured argument. Misogyny is only one of over 20 factors that explain the pay gap between men and women and by far the least important. There does appear to be a pattern of questioning gender when civilisations collapse as was the case with Greeks and Romans. Transgender and the right to self-identify is more of a decadent (my word) social contagion than a justified assertion of human rights by a significant and repressed minority (as was the case for homosexuals). He may or may not be right about the latter but he is entitled to air his opinions and his opinions are always worth listening to.

Yes, I’d love to be a student of his if I could go back in time but not so much Socrates. Challenging philosophical thinking might attract some very negative press and social media these days, as JP has discovered, but back in the day it got Socrates and some of his followers killed.

What is your Philosophy?

I normally write about business and marketing and what is wrong with both. This leads me into economics and its more recent lack of social purpose – I blame Behavioural Economics – and I end up with a bit of philosophising. A good friend who is always gracious enough to read my work commented on a draft of my latest eBook and asked if I had been influenced by the philosopher Hannah Arendt. I hadn’t, I’d never heard of her but am now reading some of her work (we are more than just a production or consumption unit, we need to be socially engaged). His comment prompted me to try working the other way around for a change – start with the philosophy and work back to business and marketing. So here it is, strap in, it’s a long read (10,000 words).

If there’s something strange
In your neighbourhood
Who you gonna call?

If there’s something weird
And it don’t look good
Who you gonna call?

Is it time to call for the Philosophers?

The lyrics of Ray Parker Jr. taken from his song ‘ Ghostbusters’ for the film of the same name. If we’re unhappy about the state of the world, things look strange and weird, we’re concerned and worried about the future, it don’t look too good, we are about as likely to call for the philosopher as we are to call for the Ghostbusters. But we should (call for the philosopher that is, not the exorcists).

When we meet someone who we want to get to know we might ask them what they do. If they told us they were a philosopher what would we think? Most people would not have a clue what being a philosopher really meant or what it involved but notwithstanding would assume it related to some kind of naval-gazing academic job. QI – quite interesting but not really relevant to everyday life or global challenges.

There was a time when being a philosopher was a very big deal. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates were the rock stars of their time, as important if not more important than Kings and Emperors because the most powerful force in the world was, and still is, ideas and philosophers had ideas about life and how those ideas should govern what we do. The ideas that came from a long line of philosophers have shaped our world. Ideas from  the Greek philosophers like Plato (Demo-cracy, the power of the people) and many of the ideas that followed from some well-known names like Machiavelli (the end justifies the means), Karl Marx (class conflict) and perhaps, outside academia,  the less well known like Rousseau and Locke (nature versus nurture), John Stuart Mill (freedom means doing what you want as long as it does not harm others), Wittengenstein (the world is not ordained, it is what we make it), Jean Paul Sartre (belief in God is a distraction,  life is absurd, our choices define our lives) remain highly relevant to the challenges we face. Do we believe in the power of the people and what do we mean by that (what political system works best)? Do the ends justify the means – in an emergency like a pandemic are governments free to do whatever they think right even if it curtails our human rights? Are we free to pursue any lifestyle, any gender we want? What does ‘not harming others’ mean? As people are we able to break free of our background, is how we’re nurtured and taught more important than our basic nature? Is God a distraction, is life whatever we choose to make it, can we change the course of nature and history? Or is there a higher force with a pre-ordained plan?

Philosophers are very careful with language. They need to deal in precise definitions because misunderstandings can undermine an idea or argument. This accounts for the naval-gazing reputation because philosophers will take a long time to debate the meaning of everything, even the meaning of the word ‘idea’ or ‘argument’ let alone morality, ethics, nature (Wittengenstein was particularly hot on this). There are many rabbit holes down which one can disappear as one wrestles with different philosophies.

However, there is one definition that does need to be made clear, the difference between philosophy and religion. Philosophy is concerned with ideas about life, its meaning and how it should affect behaviour, what we do, in all aspects life. The product of philosophy is therefore an ideology, a system of beliefs. Theology is the study of God and religion, a system of beliefs based on ones understanding of God is what you get from a theologists and religious leaders.

Philosophers and their ideas were once more powerful than Kings and Emperors (philosophers like Socrates were killed for their beliefs) but arguably more powerful than either were Religious Leaders.

It is not true to say all philosophers were or are atheists. The majority have been either atheists or agnostics, at the very least they have questioned religion and religious belief, it was their job to do so. Aristotle and Plato believed in God (define God – a higher power?). One of the things that got Socrates into trouble was that he was more inclined to believe in one god rather than ‘The Gods’ which contradicted the prevailing religion in his day. Jesus, whatever else one believes about him, son of God, Messiah, prophet, was also a philosopher and he definitely believed in God.

Philosophy is neither framed nor constrained by religious belief. Theology is both framed and constrained by whatever one believes about God. It might offend the religious to say so but any set of ideas by which one lives is an ideology or a philosophy however, in theology or religion any challenge to the ideology, any gaps in knowledge, any inconsistencies, any lack of evidence or proof is explained away by faith. One might say that a religious theology is basically a set of ideas full of holes plugged by faith. There is nothing wrong with faith, it is essential to us, we cannot function without it. If we trust nothing and no-one we are unable to do anything. We cannot live our lives questioning everything. We need some faith in our relationships and the future to make life worth living. On the other hand we have to question some things, we can’t just rely on trust and faith, we have to require proof on occasions. No-one would trust a scientist if they just guessed. No-one should trust a philosopher if they plug the holes in an argument with faith or religious belief. But that is an atheist’s point of view.

Religion in all its forms is still the dominant ideology in the world. The majority of people on the planet identify with one or other of the major religions such as Christianity (30%), Islam (25%) or Hinduism (15%). So if you believe in God and Religion then in times of trouble who are you going to call? Ghostbusters, or  Priests, or Imams or any religious leaders and they will have a point of view on how to deal with life’s challenges. But it might require faith and might be light on proof. Their thinking will not be as intellectually rigorous as a philosopher and yet most people no longer seem to appreciate the importance of philosophy and philosophers. A casual search on Google threw up the following list of modern day philosophers.

  • Sally Haslanger.
  • Daniel Dennett.
  • Linda Martin Alcoff.
  • Martha Nussbaum.
  • David Chalmers.
  • Jennifer Saul.
  • Noam Chomsky.
  • Jürgen Habermas
  • Steven Pinker
  • Jordan Peterson

All are highly respected in academic circles and among the bon pensant but none are exactly household names. Jordan Peterson and Steve Pinker have a wider notoriety but they were added to catch the reader out. They are psychologists not philosophers.

It could be that contemporary philosophers haven’t added much to the thinking of ‘the great philosophers’ but as has been pointed out beyond Plato, Aristotle and Marx few of ‘the greats’ are well known outside academia. Speaking of which, in American universities Philosophy is the 89th most popular major accounting for less than 0.2% of all students (one in every 500) so not that popular.

Philosophy is not seen as mainstream, it is seen as academic in the popular sense of the word which is to say not relevant to real life and real life problems and this at a time where we face some very big real life problems.

  • We are just emerging from a global pandemic and the biggest shock to the global economy ever seen.
  • The gap between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have-nots’ is wide and getting wider
  • The Geo-political tectonic plates are shifting, we are closer to global conflict than at any time since 1945
  • We face potentially disastrous climate change
  • We are just starting to see the impact of AI and robotics which will have the biggest impact on society since we invented the wheel using opposable thumbs

Now more than ever we need philosophy, a belief system with fully joined up thinking to guide our actions and decisions but now more than ever we think philosophy is academic, irrelevant. We have religious ideologies but as ever they seem conflicted and literally in conflict, with each other and with political ideologies (essentially totalitarianism or democracy).

We could do with a modern day Plato or Aristotle or Socrates.

Where did it all go wrong for Philosophy?

The answer is ‘The Enlightenment’, the period that roughly spans the 17th and 18th centuries. This is also known as ‘The Age of Reason’ an explosion in the pursuit of knowledge that spread ideas across the world from science to human rights and liberalism. At the epicenter of this were people like Sir Isaac Newton and Adam Smith. The culmination of it was the French (and maybe the American) Revolution. Not everywhere and to varying degrees, the Age of Reason saw the further separation of State and Church that had begun in the Renaissance. This is very important because it gave space for ideas to develop outside religion and the old world order. It was also the period where philosophy started to fragment.

We think of Sir Isaac Newton as a scientist but in his time he was known as a mathematician and natural philosopher. He saw himself as pursuing a branch of philosophy, one that sought to make sense of the natural world and the physical universe as part of general exploration of the meaning of life and the way the world worked. His particular area of philosophy placed value on observation, measurement, experimentation that would become known as Science. Just before Newton died Adam Smith was born, he went on to write ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and is known as the father of economics but he too saw himself as a philosopher focused on a branch of philosophy that was becoming known as political science (the word ‘economics’ as we know it came along 100 years later, until then it was an aspect of political science).

In ‘The Age of Reason’ philosophy fragmented into a lot of other disciplines and it continues to do so today. By the time we entered the 19th Century we were paying far more attention to Science (in all its forms), Politics, Economics as well as Geography, Medicine and the Arts of course. By the end of 19th century and into the 21st Century we had Sociology, Psychiatry, Psychology, Anthropology –  Philosophy’s Big Bang expansion continued as all the other disciplines fragmented into further specialisations. To bring the fragmentation of philosophy right up to date we now have Behavioural Science and Behavioural Economics that have been enthusiastically embraced by politicians, economists, sociologists, psychologists (if not always enthusiastically embraced behavioural science is at least taken into account by any modern day thinker).

In all this complex and dynamic jigsaw of social and physical sciences Philosophy has lost its clout. The plethora of specific disciplines do not ladder up to a higher philosophical ideology, on the contrary they seem dislocated from philosophy. It is almost as if there has been another kind of Renaissance, a separation not between State and Church but between philosophy and science, both physical and social science. In plain English, by diminishing the role of philosophy we have diminished our ability to do joined up thinking. We know that politicians do not have all the answers, we know neither do economists or sociologists or psychologists or populists or despots. Some might believe religious leaders do but there is no evidence that they do. Another way to look at the difference between (most) religious ideologies and an atheists philosophy is that the latter deals with this life and this world, religion is as much, if not more, concerned with the next life.

However, both religion and philosophy trump the more dislocated, agnostic branches of social and physical science because they have a point of view, a belief system, an ideology not just about how the world works but how it should work. Both religion and philosophy have a purpose which is, to use a popular term, to be the best version of ourselves in the best of all possible worlds. The joined up thinking has a strategic objective.

What did the Renaissance do for you?

Historians will point out that the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment was only made possible by the Renaissance that preceded it. This is undeniably true, the period of cultural rebirth that took us out of the Dark Ages laid the foundations for the explosion of enlightened ideas and not just because of the separation of State and Church. Some very important things happened in the Renaissance that have echoes in the situation we find ourselves today. Guttenberg invented the printing press in 1440 which allowed the spread of ideas but what ideas? At the heart of the Renaissance, the catalyst, was a revival of interest in Ancient Greek philosophy. Without going into details there had been a major shift in the Geo-Political tectonic plates with the Fall of Constantinople as the Byzantine empire gave way to Ottoman empire. This forced the migration of Greek and Latin scholars seeking to flee the conflict and they took with them precious documents containing the writings of the ancient philosophers. Aristotle, Seneca and others and their ideas came back in fashion. Contemporary scholars in the West (that is West Europe) wanted more than just to understand the great ancient philosophers they wanted to exceed them and take the thinking further.

The traumatic wars of the past, the ones that followed in the 17th century and, as some have suggested, the Great Plague of 1665 shook people out of an acceptance of the old order, acceptance held together by superstition, fear and an unquestioning faith in God and King/Queen. It created curiosity about the possibility of a better way to live, better ideas to live by. It created the fertile ground where new ideas, founded in ancient wisdom, could take root, and Guttenberg provided the means to spread them far and wide.

Looking at the situation today, we have had major shocks – wars, plagues, financial crises – our tectonic plates are shifting. We have the internet which creates an ability to share, and access to, ideas on a far greater scale than print. We face existential threats, we are questioning the old order. Is it time to revive an interest in philosophy? Should we start by revisiting the ancient Greek philosophers?

The Wisdom of the Greeks

To defend the idea that the solution to present day problems lies in revisiting Ancient Greek Philosophy is going to require some simplification both in framing the challenges we face and summarizing the ancient philosophical insight that might be of relevance. The argument so far is that philosophy has been side-lined. Philosophy as an overarching ideology (or set of guiding principles and beliefs about how life should work) fragmented into a host of different and often dislocated disciplines such as politics, economics, sociology, psychology etc. The first two, politics and economics, are the dominant forces in shaping our world but they have lost any connection to an over-arching philosophy. This disconnection really began after the end of the Cold War, at the end of 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. Up until then both politics and economics were connected to two opposing philosophies, Marxism and Liberal Capitalism (both of which trace their roots all the way back to the Greeks).

Marxist philosophy believes in a world with no class structure where everything is owned collectively and everyone receives according to their needs and contributes according to their abilities.

Liberal Capitalism believes in private ownership, letting the forces of the market determine who wins and who loses within a framework of personal liberty.

This is a very simplistic summary and it can be made even simpler. In Marxism the State runs everything for the greater good, in capitalism individuals are free to get ahead, free to get rich.

[The schism depends on ones view of human nature, the role nature versus nurture, what ‘social contract’ we should have with each other and the community or state, subjects that were central to the work of Philosophers like Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes.]

However, the Marxism versus Capitalism debate has been and gone. There are really only three political philosophies and they are in real time conflict because they are so very different.

  1. Democracy – power to the people: USA, Europe, India and others
  • Autocracy – power for the few: China, Russia, Myanmar and others
  • Theocracy – power in the name of God: Islamic States like Iran where State and Religion are united

In these three political systems we can see a connection to three different philosophies on effective government, and this was very clear to the Greeks. They understood autocracy and theocracy, they’d endured them, so they came up with democracy.

What is less obvious is the connection between these political philosophies and a philosophy or point of view on life and people.

  • Is life all about service or is it about seeking pleasure and having fun?
  • Do we work to earn the right to have fun?
  • Are we inherently greedy and selfish so we need a rule-based society?
  • Or are we basically decent and just need society to allow us to be free top grow?
  • Is there a ‘we’ – are we all the same or are we all different?
  • Is it inevitable that we form tribes based on self-interest and identity?

The Greeks understood and wrestled with these questions. Crucially they, the philosophers, believed two things. Firstly, it was important to think about how we should live, not just get on with living. Secondly, in thinking and discussing these issues it was important to do so constructively and with civility.

To create a bridge between the wisdom of the ancient philosophers and our challenges (as they did in the Renaissance faced with the same need to come up with even better ideas for a better society) let us break this down to 3 basic questions:-

  1. Is life about service or pleasure or both?
  2. What is the best political system (based on how similar or different we are)?
  3. What is the best way to debate this?

With this in mind let’s see what the Greeks can teach us.

Stoicism and Hedonism

We use the words stoic or hedonist to describe people. A stoic person is someone who soldiers on uncomplainingly in the face of adversity. A hedonist is someone just out to have fun, a person who thinks life is all about seeking pleasure. By inference a stoic puts their service to a cause or to others before themselves and their own comfort and happiness. A hedonist is all me, me, me.

In fact Stoicism and Hedonism are both schools of Greek Philosophy, there is a lot more to them and they do not necessarily contradict each other.

Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium and championed by other Greek philosophers such as Epictetus right through to Seneca, a Roman philosopher, and the philosophizing Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoics believed in living a virtuous life in harmony with nature. They saw nothing inherently right or wrong in wealth or pleasure but they believed true pleasure lay in virtue and because of this they believed one had to be emotionally resilient to misfortune – being virtuous is not easy. Would we, today, be better off living a more stoic life? Should we not be teaching this to our children? Is this not an antidote to the over-sensitive, virtue-signaling yet decadent and self-oriented culture some people perceive to be the root of our moral decline. Isn’t living in harmony with nature what it means to be green and sustainable?

What about Hedonism? The earliest champion of hedonism, earlier even than Socrates, was the Greek Philosopher Democritus although it wasn’t his main thing. He is better known for his theory that the universe is made up inter-connected atoms, so he was the world’s first atomic scientist. However, he also believed that we should be joyful and cheerful. Many different schools of Hedonistic philosophy followed with some differences of opinion but they all believed it was right to pursue pleasure and avoid pain and suffering. What is not so well understood about hedonism as a philosophy, a misunderstanding that accounts for it becoming synonymous with decadence, is that pleasure could be found in many ways. It could be found in doing work you enjoy, in serving others, in being virtuous. A hedonist believed for example that if there were two ways to travel to a destination why would you not choose the one with the best views? Again this seems very relevant to our world today and not in conflict with stoicism. Study after study shows that we find most pleasure and happiness in having good relationships with those we care about and not in stuff we buy and accumulate. Noel Coward famously said that work is more fun than fun, that the happiest people are those who get paid to do what they enjoy so much they’d do it for free. Is this not what we try to tell our children, find your vocation in something you care about, a job that brings you pleasure?

Lesson number One from the Greeks – pursue a life of stoicism and hedonism.

Fighting for Democracy

We give the credit to Plato for coming up with Demo-cracy – power of the people – as a political system but in fact it was an idea that percolated and circulated among several Greek philosophers, including his famous teacher, Socrates and his famous pupil, Aristotle. Plato just happened to write it up in a book, The Republic. Like stoicism and hedonism the true meaning of democracy has been corrupted and dumbed down over the years. Today it means everyone gets to vote for who they want to govern them, so government is, in theory at least, accountable to the people it serves. We skate over the issue of who gets to vote, it is all adults although maybe not those in prison. Adult means over 21 years old in some countries, 18 years old or even 16 years old in others (16 year olds can vote in Argentina, Austria and several other countries – they were allowed to vote in the Scottish Independence referendum).

In Plato/Socrates’ view only Guardians, the minority who were educated for much longer than the majority Artisans, should be allowed to vote. They voted on behalf of the less educated artisans but they were not an exclusive elite. The child of an artisan could become a Guardian if they showed the aptitude. In Plato’s democracy there was, crucially, equality of opportunity. It was one system of democracy and there are now many, many others. The USA, UK and France would all see themselves as the epitome of democratic political systems and yet the system for voting is radically different in each country. USA has a very bizarre and arcane system that dates back to the end of the civil war and the need to avoid the hegemony of the Northern States over the Southern States. It is a collegiate system where different states are allotted a different number of votes. The determination of this allocation is fairly opaque. This system means that a Presidential candidate can poll more votes than the opposing candidate but can still lose the race to the Whitehouse.

In France they take account of the voters second choice so you can become President by being a popular alternative choice but not most people’s first choice. The UK has a representational system, you vote for a candidate to represent your area and in effect you vote for their party or vice versa. This means a party can assume government with a relatively small minority of the total vote. So when we say, as many of us do, we believe in democracy, what exactly do we mean? Who gets to vote? Why? How do they vote? Why?

A lot of people will say they’re not interested in politics let alone philosophy. However, a lot of voters, close to half the UK population, were really upset by the Brexit result. A lot of people in America were appalled by Trump winning and the other half were disappointed he lost, an outcome that was reversed at the next election. Yet none of those people seem to question the political system. If the UK had used anything close to the USA or French voting system (and/or let 16 years old vote as they did in the Scottish Independence Referendum or insist on a 60% plus majority as they also did in that referendum) the result would have been to remain in the EU. If Americans are concerned about a choice between Trump and Biden they should question their democratic political system that delivers just these two alternatives.

Democracy needs to be debated, not the idea but the application. Perhaps Plato et al had it right all along. Giving power to people, making government accountable to the public, does not mean everyone gets to vote but if not it must mean everyone has the same opportunity to earn the right to vote. We are relying on our governments to address the issues of the day, we need to pay more attention to how we vote them in and out.

Lesson Number Two from the Greeks – democracy is better than the alternatives and worth fighting for, but we need to define precisely what we mean by democracy.

Civil Constructive Debate

The Greek philosophers seemed almost as concerned about how an argument was conducted as the issues being debated. In ‘Republic’ Plato uses a very specific technique to set out the arguments. It is written as a discussion between his mentor Socrates and various other people using constructive questions to stimulate critical thinking and advance the discussion. Examples of a Socratic question are:-

  • What did you mean by that, could you explain it further?
  • Could you give me some examples?
  • Are there circumstances where your argument would not apply?
  • Is there an alternative point of view?

This way of discussing, exploring and developing an argument is known as ‘Socratic Discourse’.

As time went by philosophers became even more precise about different types of argument.

Eristic This is where you seek to dispute someone’s point of view. You are not trying to find the truth, you are trying to prove you are right by proving the other side is wrong.

Didactic This method of debate is intended to educate someone. You know the truth and you are just trying to get the other person to see the light.

Dialectic This is a discourse between two or more people with different points of view who wish to arrive at the truth through reasoned argument.

In a dialectic argument one person sets out their point of view, their thesis. The person sets out their opposing view, the anti-thesis and the objective through constructive discussion and debate is to arrive at a conclusion, the synthesis, one that is stronger than either the thesis or anti-thesis (not a compromise, a better and more informed idea).

Having a number of ‘existential’ challenges – climate change, growing economic disparity, clashes of ideology, AI and robotics – is scary enough but what is even scarier is our inability to discuss them thoroughly, constructively and with civility. Social media, soundbites, echo chambers, fake news, identity politics have created an unhealthy polarisation of views and robbed us of our ability to discuss issues ‘Socratically’. With no dialectic debate we are left with eristic and didactic argument – ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, let me put you right’. Worst still if we disagree with someone (or an institution) on one issue our views on everything are cancelled, a platform for debate is removed from us.

That the world has problems is not the concern, problems can always be solved, if by no other means then by changing the rules and assumptions. That the world seems to be losing the ability to discuss and debate constructively and effectively is terrifying. It is often impossible to test out and prove a solution, strategy or proposed course of action, even in science and law, it is only possible to test the assumptions on which it is based. To do that you need to ask the right questions.

Lesson number Three from the Greeks – argument is good, not knowing how to argue and ask the right questions so as to get to better answers is bad.

Some important caveats

This is a very simplistic overview.

It only refers to Western philosophy, there is a wealth of forgotten wisdom in eastern philosophy. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are very important, so are Lao Tzu, Buddha and Confucius.

Neither the ancient Greek nor the ancient eastern philosophers had to contend with technology. In their day technology and scientific discovery progressed slowly, today their evolution is exponential.

However, the intention was to create a renaissance in our appreciation of the importance of philosophy and demonstrate the relevance of over-arching ideas not just about how the world works but about how it should work so as to solve the challenges we face,. The hope is we re-establish the idea of philosophy as the superior discipline able to connect and guide politics, economics, psychology and technology. Philosophy should guide all social, physical, natural and  technological science, it should frame everything, but these four are highlighted because our ‘playbooks’ predominantly come from them.

The importance of philosophy to everyone and everything.

If we meet someone and want to get to know them what do we do? If the meeting is face to face whether consciously (or cognitively) but more often unconsciously we look at them and weigh them up according to our assessment of their socio-demographics. Are they young or old, do they look well off or down at heel, male, female (or non-binary)? We also weigh them up by their appearance and demeanour – smartly dressed and smiling or tattooed, wearing a hoodie and sullen. We will take in lots of other visual cues as to which ethnic group they come from, any other signs or badges that indicate with whom and which community or interest groups they identify.

This takes just a few seconds and so far the person has said nothing. In the process of this initial assessment we will, with unconscious bias, have bought to bear all our prejudices whatever they may be. There is no point in trying to turn off prejudice we are primordially programmed to make hasty judgement based on heuristics or mental short-hands. Without this ability we could not live or survive – if you hear a rustle in the hedgerow you jump first, ask questions later.

So we will have an initial opinion of the person. Then we might ask a few questions probably starting with ‘what do you do?’ or ‘what’s your background’. We will use the answers to these questions to confirm, modify or challenge our initial assessment but unless we are an open-minded and self-disciplined person more often than not we will listen more to the answers that confirm our prejudice. Is this someone I can trust, someone I’d like to spend time with, is it someone I want to hire? Is it someone whose views are worth listening to?

It would be far better to cut to the chase and ask them:-

“What is your philosophy on life?”

Assuming they were prepared to answer you honestly and assuming they understood what the question meant you would know very quickly whether the person was someone you want to get to know, hang out with, hire or trust.

If the tattooed, hoodie wearing, sullen looking youth, with a Millwall Football Club scarf replied, “My philosophy on life is that you are happiest if you work hard at something you feel makes a difference to other people and you should not give in to adversity” you might warm to them.

If the smiley, besuited ‘gent’, with an MCC tie replied, “You only get one shot at life, I think you owe it to yourself to grab what you can and have as much fun as possible” you might not warm to them, or perhaps you might.

We tend to like people who have a similar outlook on life to ourselves even if their interests and background are very different. A shared philosophy is able to cut through prejudice.

From people let’s turn to business. A company will share their mission statement and often their values, they might even share their strategy. With credit to Simon Sinek who popularised the importance of ‘why’ in corporate endeavour it has become fashionable for a business to state their purpose. All of this allows us to infer a lot about their basic philosophy on business but it is still inference. Only a few corporations or institutions will share their philosophy on life and how that relates to their philosophy on business. If they don’t share their philosophy then they are hiding something or they haven’t thought about it deeply enough, so there isn’t really anything public or explicit or thought-through that guides their actions.

Some might think this is unfair, if a business shares its purpose and its values, does that not tell you pretty much their belief system, their ideology? No not really.

It’s been left quite late in this essay to define what philosophy really means but it is relevant now in order to highlight the difference between an individual and an organisation or collective. An individual can be expected to have a philosophy (which might come from their religious belief, we will return to that shortly). In this sense philosophy is a thing, an ideology, a set of beliefs by which one navigates life’s choices and challenges. You can have a philosophy without being a philosopher.

Literally philosophy is a ‘love of knowledge and wisdom’ and in this sense it is an activity, a constant search to understand more about the world, how it works, how it should work, one’s role in that. When it comes to an organisation like a business, they may have a philosophy in the same way they may have a strategy, but just like strategy, philosophy is also an activity, a constant desire to know more and adapt as the world evolves. For a business, if you are in any way a stakeholder, you want to know not just what is their philosophy now but also in what way are they trying to develop it. Philosophy comes before strategy and everyone knows that strategy evolves as circumstances and society changes. So philosophy should be an activity not just ‘a thing’.

Let’s use a real example, Vodafone, the European and African Telecommunications Business to illustrate the potential for philosophy in business. From their web site this is their mission statement.

Vodafone mission statement is: “To connect for a better future and our expertise and scale gives us a unique opportunity to drive positive change for society.” 

Vodafone believes in connecting and empowering people for the better. It also focuses on socio-economic progress and protecting the planet. Additionally, the company also focuses on becoming the favorite brand of its customer. It does so by continuously raising the bar in providing a delightful experience, cutting-edge service, and meaningful innovations. Here are the main components of Vodafone mission statement:

Inclusion of all: Vodafone believes in inclusion for all and providing a set of opportunities for growth to all. This includes bridging the boundaries in our society so that everyone can contribute to the best of their ability. The company also focuses on creating gender equality by opening opportunities to women. It also connects 10 million youth to learn digital skills educate themselves and get employment. It connects and empowers people and communities. 

Establishing a digital world– Through its digital services, the company wants to contribute towards growth, economic prosperity, and sustainable development. This is an important aspect of Vodafone mission statement. To ensure that everyone gets a fair opportunity in this fast-paced digital age, it wants to enhance the accessibility of technology so that everyone can take advantage of this change for betterment. 

Planet / Environment care- Further, it also makes efforts to become the most-valued company by leading smartly and meeting the government’s standards while ensuring minimal environmental impact. The company is working towards reducing greenhouse emissions by 50%, using renewable sources of electricity, and ensuring that e-waste is tacked in the best way minimizing environmental impact. These green initiatives of the company reveal that Vodafone takes its responsibility towards the environment is as important as its expansion plans and profitability. 

What does this tell you? Not much really. They are big, they think what they do, i.e. connectivity, can make the increasingly digital world a better place and they believe in diversity, opportunity and saving the planet. That is pretty much what their competitors say about themselves too

In 2019 Vodafone were rated as the worst mobile phone network in the UK for the 8th consecutive year. If they want to be the favourite brand and offer ‘a delightful experience’ they are not doing a great job in one of their biggest markets. On the other hand in the same year in South Africa, where they  trade as Vodacom, they were rated the best. So Vodacom/Vodafone are a bit patchy, their ‘mission and values’ do not seem to be working very consistently. Might this be because they are confected?.

We will leave that question hanging…………

Most businesses will set out the following:-

Our mission is…. and what will follow is some way of expressing what winning looks like

Our purpose is…. and what will follow is some expression of a higher purpose that makes the world a better place

We believe in…..

……and what will follow normally cover the following:-

  • We care about our customers
  • We care about our people
  • We care about our communities and the planet
  • We believe in opportunity and innovation

And of course we care about making money…..responsibly.

Now look at these 3 business philosophies.

Business A – We believe the most important thing in life for most people is to have a job that is fulfilling, where you feel valued and where you can develop your full potential. So as a business our focus is our employees, we care more about them than anything else. We believe that will make us a successful business (if you measure success in terms of long term market place success) because employees who feel valued, who believe in what they are doing, who feel they can reach their potential, give great service, come up with better innovations, are committed and loyal etc etc

Business B – We are a business and we are amoral as regards society or the planet. Not immoral, knowing the difference between right and wrong and choosing the latter if it suits you, we are amoral, we don’t care about right or wrong. We let the lawmakers deal with that and we just operate to the letter not the spirit of the law. Our only role is to make as much money as we possibly can for our shareholders, they can use the profits any way they want. Let them invest in the planet if they want, not our issue. We are a meritocracy, we hire and promote the best, we don’t care about diversity. We’ve found that high performance teams are more diverse but diversity is not our objective, performance is.

Business C – We make widgets, we love making widgets, we are passionate about it. Our only goal in life is to make the best widget we possibly can and we are never satisfied, we always think we can do better. We don’t care about making money as long as we make enough to keep on making better and better widgets. We don’t care about our people unless they are as passionate about our widgets as we are. We think the world would be a better place if everyone just did what they are best at and kept trying to get better at it.

Three very different philosophies on life and business. So here are three questions, ceteris paribus:-

  1. Which business would you want to work for?
  2. Which business would you invest in?
  3. Whose products or services would you be most likely to buy?

And here is a supplementary question –  do you think that these three businesses with these three very different but very clear philosophies would take decisions with more or less consistency than Vodafone? Of course they would, so in fact each one is a better investment and will deliver better products or services. They will also be a better place to work depending on one’s personal philosophy. The worst place to work is where the Senior Team say one thing – “we care about customer service” – and do another – “we make the most we can for us and our shareholders”.

What else would we want to know about a business beyond its philosophy? We would want to know how much they loved knowledge, how curious they were to learn more, in what way they invested in that in terms of people and money. How committed are they to the activity of philosophy? Do they for example have a head of Philosophy on the board (because if they are not on the board with the CEO’s ear they are not taken that seriously).

The job of Head of Philosophy in Business

Every business has a boss, typically given the title Chief Executive Officer, or CEO. Supporting the CEO is a leadership team with various organisational permutations comprising roles and titles. However organised and titled the key people will have accountability for the most important assets and capabilities of the business (in no particular order):-

  • People – Human Resources
  • Money – Finance
  • Know-how – R&D, Production and Operations
  • Reputation (often called Marketing)

So who is in charge of philosophy? There will often be a head of strategy either as a direct report to the CEO or reporting though the finance line, the CFO, chief finance officer. Given its importance there should be a ‘Chief Philosophy Officer’ unless of course, like Emperor Marcus Aurelius the CEO takes on this role themselves.

Does this sound fanciful or just plain daft? McKinsey don’t think so and they are very smart and not given to fancy. They have just launched a new publication authored by three of their partners. This is the introduction to the promotion for the publication:-

“There’s one question that guides the best CEOs as they build relationships with their organization’s stakeholders: Why? Why does our company exist? Why are we relevant to our stakeholders? Why are our stakeholders relevant to us?
Embracing the “why” mindset leads to practices such as clarifying and operationalizing a company’s social purpose, finding often surprising areas of common ground with stakeholders, and staying elevated during times of crisis, according to McKinsey senior partners Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller, and Vikram Malhotra, as they talk about their forthcoming book, CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest (Scribner, March 15, 2022).” 

Sounds like they are talking about philosophy.

So should the CPO, or the CEO if they assume responsibility for the big ‘why?’ questions, have studied philosophy at University? How would a degree or masters in Philosophy prepare you for the world of business? Very well indeed. The core activity in running a business or a function within a business is forming and critiquing arguments. “Were we to invest in this way, these would be the outcomes that support our overall goals”. The study of philosophy is the single best way to train oneself to break down an argument, understand and challenge the assumptions, debate and challenge meaning and intent in a constructive way. The philosopher is the best joined-up thinker (so strategy should report through them not the CFO) they are also the very best at considering unintended consequences. In business most attention is paid to the goals and objectives, the intended consequences, so every business, government, organization of any ilk should have someone who takes it on themselves to consider unintended consequences, since that is what causes them to underachieve or fail altogether.

The job of the Chief Philosophy Officer should be to develop the philosophy of the business, articulate it clearly, ensure it is informs every function and every decision (not least strategy), consider unintended consequences and lead the ongoing exploration into how the philosophy needs to evolve as the world evolves.

Yes, business leaders should have studied philosophy. Everyone should study philosophy, it should be taught in schools. Whatever else philosophy teaches you, it teaches you what woolly thinking is and how to avoid it.

Philosophy is relevant to business, to government, to any organization, even a football team. Sir Matt Busby was the legendry manager of Manchester United in the 1960’s, one of their most successful periods as a club, especially impressive as they had had to rebuild after the Munich Air Crash where many key players and staff lost their lives. In January of 1969, the unthinkable happened, Sir Matt Busby retired and left the club. The Guardian wrote an article paying tribute to the great man with the headline:-

“The most philosophical footballer”

The Guardian and many others recognized that what distinguished Sir Matt Busby was the deep thought he gave to the game, the foundation for his philosophy about football that guided everything he did. The same thing has been noted about some other successful sports coaches, it is not so much what they do as the philosophy behind what they do that makes them successful.

People will have a point of view about British politics and British Prime Ministers, including the current incumbent, Boris Johnson. Are our politics to be admired? Who were the best Prime Ministers? It’s debatable. What is factual is that for the most part they had a classical education, mostly in Public (that is to say the top Private) Schools. Most studied philosophy and history at some point, some majored in PPE – Politics, Philosophy and Economics. John Major did not, he was an exception being state educated and without a university degree. His predecessor, Margaret Thatcher also went to a state school in Grantham and from there graduated with a degree in chemistry at Oxford. However, she had a strong philosophy on life, a very clear ideology, that for better or worse was the compass by which she navigated every political challenge. It was a philosophy she inherited from her father, a Methodist Shop Keeper, and it was a philosophy recognizable as Stoic. Her philosophy strongly influenced Boris Johnson but not as much as his education at Eton and Balliol Oxford where he studied Classics and was a member of the Bullingdon Club. Boris knows his philosophy and history, both modern and ancient, and might be said to be more of hedonist than a stoic?

If a lot of British politicians and of course politicians around the world have at the very least an appreciation of philosophy, they are not woolly thinkers, how is it that so much policy is woolly and ineffective? The answer is that Politics is their guiding light, the acquisition and exercise of power which can distract from what is right, according to one’s philosophy, to what wins support and votes in order to retain power.

In criticism of Behavioral Science (and Economics) and in defense of Religion

Aside from Politics the other dominant forces in shaping our world are religion and economics. In the development of economics from as far back as St. Thomas Aquinas (who saw himself as a theologian) through to Adam Smith and Marx (who saw themselves as political philosophers) and Keynes or Friedman there was always an explicit social purpose. Economic theory was developed to create a better, fairer society based on a view about what that was, a philosophy. Today we have Behavioral Science, the study of actions and behaviour, that has spawned Behavioral Economics. The only purpose of economics is to create growth – make more, sell more, get more. A better understanding of what people do based on hard empirical data offers the chance to game the system to one’s advantage. Economics seems to have lost any connection to a higher purpose (to be fair this is not true of Islamic Economics). The word ‘behaviour’ says it all, it forces a bias towards the way things are rather than a philosophy for how they should be. We can argue the words, the order, the priorities but this is offered as Straw Man for a better world:-

Purpose – as far as possible everyone in society should feel they have some purpose in life. (Historically the economists described this as full employment based on an efficient division of labour.)

Well-being – we should aim to achieve a widespread sense of well-being that will in part be achieved through purpose but will also require social care. (In the past this would be expressed as adequately funding a welfare state)

Opportunity – create the means for self-improvement and the ambition to seek it. (AKA Education, which actually means ‘to bring forth’)

Protect the environment – Conservation, climate control, eliminating pollution – recycle, re-use, repurpose. (AKA Sustainability)

By now it should be clear that these have roots in philosophy, particularly those highlighted. Any economic theory should be oriented explicitly to these kind of goals. People’s current behaviour should not be accepted as a constraint – understand, measure, analyze behaviour by all means but use this as a window to a better world, a springboard not something to exploit and manipulate . When it comes to AI and Robotics do we want to upload Behavioral Science, this is how it works now, or philosophy, this is how it could and should work?

The 2021 BBC Reith Lectures were delivered by Stuart Russell, a British born Computer Scientist now at Berkeley and a leading thinker in AI. He painted a terrifying picture of the implications of AI and robotics on human society unless we act with moral purpose, which requires a philosophy on the kind of society we want to create, the best version of humanity. We will not get this from “Behavioural Economics” because it is devoid of philosophy and amoral.

As noted above Margaret Thatcher’s ideology came from her Methodist father rather an any study of or appreciation for philosophy per se. Islamic economics is neither capitalist nor Marxist, it is significantly different to either because it is guided by religious belief and ideology as to what society should be, not what it is. There is a role for religion.

In Plato’s Republic the majority of people were artisans, educated until they were 16 years old. The minority were Guardians who went on to be educated in philosophy (in the fullest meaning of this, the meaning of everything) until they were 30 years old. It must be re-emphasized because it is so important, that one’s parentage had no influence on whether one went on to be a Guardian, there was equal opportunity. (Studies have shown that children of the educated classes have an advantage in life but that is a failing of the education  system, with the same early education it does not need to be that way).

That split between the artisans, the people who get on with things, and the guardians, the shakers and movers, makes sense in today’s world. Most people have neither the interest nor aptitude to be deep thinkers, they just want to get on with life. This is where religion has a role to play. A study of comparative religion shows great similarities, almost a perfect overlap, between all the religions in terms of their values, their beliefs, their philosophy on life.

  • The importance of family and community
  • Helping those less fortunate
  • Respect for others  – treat people the way you’d like to be treated
  • Hard work and service over self-gratification

All religions also have a faith in a ‘higher power’ so while the importance of the beliefs the purpose of which can be rationalized if needs be, nonetheless they have to followed out of respect to a higher purpose whose purpose may not always be clear or explicable. Put another way most religions require either the humility to follow the rules or the fear of retribution if you don’t. Either way, just do it and trust it will work

The Zoroastrian Religion has a marvelously pure mantra – good thoughts, good words, good deeds. If you are not a deep thinker this works really well as a life philosophy. Just try it.

If, however, you are a deep thinker, an iconoclast, a potential shaker and mover, unquestioning religious adherence is not enough. George Bernard Shaw put it beautifully:-

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable man adapts the world to himself, therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”

Progress requires challenge and that cannot exclude religion or philosophy. Progressive people challenge everything, they are free-thinkers.

There is no study to prove this, but it seems fair to suggest that the majority of shakers and movers, today’s guardians, are not that bound by religion. Most are atheists or agnostics, not all but most. They need philosophy not religion because the former does not plug holes in knowledge or evidence with faith and it is not undermined or perverted by conservatism, extremism and outdated superstition and ritual. Again, this is an atheist’s point of view.

In conclusion

Philosophers are very disciplined about definitions. Language is the medium through which we form and share ideas so we need to be precise about the meaning of words, and we need to recognize that words often have more than one meaning. To save the reader the chore of looking it up here are the three meanings of the word philosophy:-

  1. The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence
  • A theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.
  • From Greek, the word ‘philo – sophy’ it literally means “the love of wisdom”

It would seem that now is a good time to revive interest in Philosophy, a new renaissance of enlightened thinking, if only among the guardians. We should have learned this from history.

Mark Sherrington – February 2022

Solving the Social Dilemma

I’ve just finished my article on my response to the Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’. I ran a small survey to help me in the writing of this and results are still coming in so there may be some further additions and editing to be done but I wanted to get this first version out there and see what people think. Please let me know.

“We were just following the science”

posted in: Politics | 0

I say this with no pleasure but it’s hard to see a single Covid related policy decision the UK government got right. Yes we will have to wait until there is full inquiry, until the full cycle of the pandemic has passed but it seems highly unlikely the UK will be judged to have done a good job. “Just following the science” sounds like a Nuremberg defense and I doubt it will be any more effective now than it was then.  

The mistakes at the outset, February/March, are easier to understand and forgive. With the exception of some Asian countries who had their experience of the SARS/MERS epidemics to fall back on, most of the world was caught flat footed by Covid 19. It was seen as closer to flu than SARS and by the time this mistake was realized, rammed home by the pictures  coming from Italy of bodies piling up at overrun hospitals, it was all too little, too late – on PPE, protecting the vulnerable, testing.

Social distancing began in a lot of places earlier than the official lock down in late March. Some individuals and organizations had already started to take sensible protective measures and the latest research from Bristol University suggests that it’s this, rather than the  draconian house arrest that followed, that accounts for the peak in deaths being passed in early April. It seems very likely that lock-down will prove to have come too late and that it was largely ineffective and pointless. Sensible hygiene and physical distancing were all that were needed but hindsight and all that, no blame in being overly cautious if you admit to having been overly complacent.

However, the mistakes that followed in the run up to “peak confusion” are less easy to forgive:-

  • Don’t wear masks – wear masks
  • No visitor quarantine – 2 weeks quarantine
  • 2 metres – 1 metre
  • Shield the care homes – send them untested Covid patients
  • Follow the rules – use your common sense
  • Stay home – go back to work

Today, almost mid-June, the plan to reopen schools is in tatters. A lack of co-operation on the part of some involved might be a cause of this but that lack of cooperation comes from a lack of confidence in a government that seems anything but sure footed. It may also be a resumption of politics as usual but that’s not surprising if the government is in disarray.

Yet another minister is trotted out for the media to defend not just the actions in his or her bailiwick but for the whole of cabinet; the face changes but the answer to any criticism remains the same, “At every stage we have followed the scientific advice”. Every minister seems to be the ‘Minister for Defense’ and the defense is always the same. Unfortunately it has more holes in it than swiss cheese.

It is blindingly clear that scientists do not all agree – so the question is which science did you follow and how did you choose? Clearly they followed the wrong science and /or the scientists that got it wrong, one of whom was Neil Ferguson who to his credit has now admitted his model was flawed, his estimates too high and that lock-down came too late, a decision he thinks accounts for 50% of the deaths.

In the absence of hard empirical data the science is just expert advice – and as Margaret Thatcher said, advisors advise, ministers decide. It is an abject dereliction of duty to just follow expert advice. All such advice is based on risk assessment and a scientist will not make a fully informed risk assessment otherwise we’d all be driving at 30 mph maximum, eating no sugar or salt and drinking virtually no alcohol. Maybe we should or maybe we want some freedom to choose, the liberty to do our own risk assessment.

Einstein pointed out that imagination is more important than scientific knowledge. The expert advice needed to be taken in the context of an imaginative vision for what success would look like. No such vision is apparent unless it was to ‘flatten the sombrero’ and make sure no blame could be attached to the government. We will regret that it was not braver, accepting that there would be deaths but balancing that with what is in the best interests of the majority and the preservation of our way of life as we normally do in a war. (Note; it was Boris and the government who used the war rhetoric so they have to accept the criteria).

I heard a scientist on the radio today (cannot recall his name but he advises SAGE) saying he had only two expectations – that his advice was heard and that it was understood. He had no expectations that it had to be followed since he fully accepted other advice and other factors needed to be taken into account in making policy decisions. Well said.

So not even the scientists think “we followed the science” is an acceptable defense.

That said, Scientists are better than politicians in a crisis. They will say what they think and do not regard peer review or admitting mistakes as a sign of weakness, quite the opposite. They see it as good science. Politicians deflect and obfuscate because, in the face of a hostile media, admitting mistakes and U-turns are political suicide. But is that true in a crisis? I’d like to have seen more business people involved – they know how to make decisions on imperfect information, how to make trade-offs and manage risk. They know how to work with experts with respect yet not afraid to challenge their assumptions and therefore their conclusions. Business people can take and then ignore advice in the pursuit of agreed goals. Meritocracy and performance (mostly) got them to their position, not votes. If they make a bad mistake or too many mistakes they stand down or get fired – they don’t get to hide behind advisors because they choose their advisors and what advice to take.

I think the UK government should not wait for an inquiry. They should admit they have made mistakes and take full responsibility, only that will restore some confidence. They behave as if the opposite is true, admitting mistakes will undermine not just confidence but adherence to their advice and plans going forward. Is that them just behaving like self-serving politicians normally do? Perhaps but I have another theory.

I believe they’re following the advice of behavioural scientists as they have explicitly said they’ve been doing throughout. SAGE includes behavioural scientists and it seems like they have a loud voice.

I have nothing to back up what I am about to say – yet – but I think the advice of behavioural scientists will be shown to be every bit as wrong and damaging as the advice of the Ferguson and the Imperial Team. Ferguson has now publicly said that the lock-down came one week too late and insodoing cost 50% of the deaths (let’s just say a lot, we know Neil and his numbers). Why were the government so reluctant to close the borders, ban any mass gatherings and confine as many as possible to staying at home? Because the behavioural scientists told them that it would be hard to impose a lock down and people would only put up with it for a few weeks. Go too soon and you risked people breaking lock down precisely when it was most needed.

Plum wrong. It proved relatively easy to impose the lock down and is now proving enormously hard to lift it and get back to some kind of normality.   A U-Gov survey showing that the majority of people felt no worse off under lock down and nearly a quarter felt better off might explain this. Add in the effect of the fear mantra – “Stay home, Save Live” – and it’s not just the benefit of hindsight. This could and should have been forseen.

This mistake will most likely be the cause of the biggest economic depression since 1928, possibly ever, with the UK set to be the hardest hit because we are so slow to relax the restrictions that make normal economic activity (and education) near impossible. And economic depressions cause illness and death – fact.

Is it fair to be so hard on the behavioural scientists? Time will tell. But in any event the blame will lie with the government not their scientific advisors.